Olyvia Mugweh ’17 on dance at Rowland Hall: "Sofia helped me find myself as a dancer, and in that, I was able to find myself as a person."
…isn't merely entertainment, but a soulful, skillful experience for
student-artists and audiences alike.
Dance concerts often showcase contemporary movement, but as part of the curriculum, students also learn traditional styles. Here, upper schoolers channeled that knowledge to choreograph and perform this fun, kitschy, roaring-twenties tribute—a crowd-pleasing video intro for Rowland Hall's 2017 auction, the Great Gala.
Whether taking a dance class or becoming fully immersed in the choreographic, rehearsal, performance, and social aspects of our Ensemble program, aspiring and accomplished dancers find our program inspirational and deeply involving.
Professional dancers Sofia Gorder and Allison Spehar direct and choreograph middle and upper schoolers across the full gamut of styles—from modern dance to musical theater, and from jazz improvisation to contemporary ballet. Every year, two dance concerts—one in fall, one in winter—energize our school community.
Rowland Hall offers a yearlong Lower School Dance Ensemble for second through fifth graders in our Extended Day Arts and Ensembles program. Once they're in middle and upper school, dancers are placed in Ensembles 1–6, but they're encouraged to reach across course levels and age groups to learn from one another. Dancers, after all, often work collaboratively to build something larger than themselves.
Middle schoolers work toward efficiency in movement through classical training methods such as ballet, jazz, and modern dance, as well as parkour, break dance, hip hop, martial arts, improvisation, and composition. The goal is to develop the following: the body as a tool for physicality; individual voice; technical skill for dance as an art form; and the ability to work collaboratively, negotiate the creative process, and perform.
As our students develop as dancers, so does the depth of the curriculum. In the Upper School, emphasis is placed on both proficiency and fluidity in a variety of traditional and contemporary styles. Every spring, senior dancers present a concert as the culmination of their Rowland Hall dance careers.
The innovative show featured large-scale murals, traveling props, a costume menagerie, every style of dance, and integrated orchestral, vocal, and jazz music.
Every arts performance is a collaborative event, and in recent years we’ve had a large contingency of alumni return and contribute their time and talents to our programs. This January’s dance concert, Home: The Monsters We Run From, The Refuge We Seek, featured a film by Oliver Jin ’18 and a piece choreographed by Laja Field ’08. Also assisting: Max Jacquin ’18 worked on the lighting design and Sophia Cutrubus ’18 trained dancers in the Middle School Arts & Ensemble program.
Oliver’s film served as an introduction to the dance concert, framing the themes of migration and departure in scientific terms and providing audience members with a foundation to aid their interpretation of the dancers’ work. “The film is a message that says migration and movement and departure are an integral part of our humanity,” Oliver said. He credited Rowland Hall with showing him how the arts are intertwined. Now in his first year at Sarah Lawrence College studying photography, Oliver frequently attends art installations, dance lectures, and other performances to support and learn from fellow artists.
Laja Field ’08 enjoyed coming back to Rowland Hall and collaborating with the current group of students and artists. She said the school feels like home to her: “The teachers and experiences I had there I hold very close to my heart.”After graduating in 2008, Laja Field earned her bachelor’s degree in modern dance at the University of Utah and went on to dance professionally, eventually founding the physical dance theatre company LAJAMARTIN with her partner, Martin Durov. She said studying dance at Rowland Hall—and the opportunity to complete a distinction in dance—helped her envision a career in the field. Laja was thrilled to return and create a piece on current students, which was partly inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story.
“I believe that, if we tell more stories, and we’re able to invite another perspective through dance, there’s an opportunity to see something in a new way,” Laja said. She described her piece as a mish-mash of cultural influences, which asks people to consider their roles in any given community. “Who are we? Are we the ones who open our arms? Are we the ones who listen to new stories and open up our perspectives and take them in? Or are we stuck in our ways?”
Rowland Hall’s arts department chair Sofia Gorder celebrated the desire of our alumni to collaborate with other artists and stay engaged with their alma mater: “The school breeds this idea that we come back and we give back. That’s part of the culture.” See clips from the concert and hear more from Laja and Oliver about what giving back to the arts means to them.
My Experience Collaboratively Creating the January 17–19 Dance Concert Home: The Monsters We Run From, the Refuge We Seek
By Katie Rose Kimball, Class of 2019
Every dance concert is a culmination of many artistic processes, patched and threaded together into an epic mosaic of experience, ideas, and connections. Each choreographer and dancer can trace their own emotional story through the development of the program, if only because the process takes months to complete.
Above, students run through Home in a dress rehearsal before opening night.
Coming out of the last summer of high school, I found myself thinking about the habits I had formed to structure summer days—drinking morning tea, eating questionable meals, redesigning my room—and my relationship with routines as a whole, whether they were mind-numbing, comforting, or something in between. When I was presented with the tagline of this year's concert—Home: The Monsters We Run From, the Refuge We Seek—I found myself with the perfect avenue to explore my questions about routine.
To create my dance, I settled into a cyclical process of choice, inspiration, and response. For instance, I chose music with layers of repetition to reflect how routines build on top of each other. When I was considering one potential song, another dancer casually commented that it sounded like a morning alarm. That comment propelled me to build the storyline of my dance around morning routines. This choice led to more deliberate decisions like having one dancer make a cup of tea while the rest slept. And so it went until I had filled the whole three minutes of music.
One of the hardest parts of the process was struggling with the vulnerability that comes with asking someone else to perform your art.
One of the hardest parts of the process was struggling with the vulnerability that comes with asking someone else to perform your art. When I teach a dance to another person, it's as if I'm painting a piece on wood and metal and cloth that was intended for a blank canvas. The general strokes of what I'm trying to convey transfer easily, but each individual's performance has different details and a different underlying tone. Yet, this transformation also allows me to see my ideas in a way I never can when they're caught inside my own mind. I'm forced to face that which I was trying to avoid, and I discover comfort in places I'd never thought to look.
I find myself creating a little piece of Home.
Looking around, I see each person in the dance company looking to find this piece of home, whether that's by asking what it means to be a refugee, examining our relationship with technology, exploring a child's imagination, or revealing our underlying dread of deadlines. This year's dance concert brings together a unique collection of voices that are ready to welcome you into their home.
Rowland Hall Dancers Honor Marginalized Voices in (R)evolution
Arts Department Chair and Director of Dance Sofia Gorder readily admits that history classes didn't appeal to her much in high school. "It was mostly a white-centric narrative about wars," she recalled. It wasn't until she got to graduate school and started studying the history of movement that she developed a powerful connection to past generations. "In the history of movement," Ms. Gorder said, "when people didn't have a voice, they'd use their bodies. All these marginalized voices emerged through movement that was then commodified and adopted by mainstream society."
When planning her annual dance concert this year—Rowland Hall's sesquicentennial—it made perfect sense to use the history of movement as an opportunity for students to explore the silenced voices of the past 150 years. "Asking kids to dive into those marginalized stories and then connect them to the stories we're taught in normative history has been really fruitful," Ms. Gorder said. "They're learning that disco and the twist evolved from slave dances, and that Jazzercise stemmed from the empowerment women felt after watching gay men dancing in clubs during the AIDS epidemic."
(R)evolution, as the concert is titled, ran Thursday through Saturday—February 8, 9, and 10—at the Larimer Center for the Performing Arts, and delivered both a celebratory retrospective of dance in America and a rumination on how history learned through words and images doesn't tell the whole story. Senior Sophia Cutrubus described the show as tracing the evolution of mainstream dance while demonstrating how the art provided "an outlet to express ideas and emotions that were taboo and threatened power structures in each time period." Approximately 120 students in sixth through twelfth grades performed renditions of period pieces ranging from the minuet to hip hop, with mixed-media transitions giving contextual cues, and narratives to aid the timeline.
Many of the students learned archived dances rather than developing original choreography, which made the process for this concert more educational than creative, according to Ms. Gorder. However, the research and practice of embodying highly respected artists from other generations can inform students' artistic voices in the future. Among the handful of students staging original work was junior Katie Rose Kimball, who teamed up with senior Sydney Rabbit to choreograph a piece about the history of body contact in partner dance. Sophia also had an original piece in the show: she and senior Rowen Kenny created a sequence of five dances based on the work of Merce Cunningham, and audience members will unwittingly have a hand in how these dances are performed each night.
Junior Tori Kusukawa oversaw a cluster of dances that will pay homage to major stars from the 1990s, such as Whitney Houston and Prince. While he copied choreography for Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" from music videos and live performances, he had to improvise when it came to mimicking David Bowie. "He didn't really dance much," Tori said. "So I had to capture his attitude and feeling." He relied on Ms. Gorder for guidance, as all the dancers do. "She lets us try and fail," Sophia said. "But she's always there at the end to make sure it goes well on stage."
Whether students are perfecting a replica of historical dances or producing original content, their engagement with the past helps them draw connections to the present. Sophomore Grant Dacklin choreographed a piece to showcase a style of movement from the 1970s called locking, which he referred to as hip hop's disco. While he's excited about the sharp, detailed nature of his own piece, he also recognized that this show has required him to embody roles that he's not familiar—or comfortable—with: as a straight, white male, he depicts the role of the oppressor in history.
However, Grant believes that Rowland Hall students are in a prime position to communicate about discrimination and the need for greater awareness, especially since so many revolutionary movements of the past were youth driven. "I hope that the teenage perspective has power for people," he said. "Even though these dance pieces are founded in history, we are bringing our modern-day voices and identities to them."
While Ms. Gorder and the dancers hoped the audience would enjoy the high-energy, community-oriented theme of the concert, they did not shying away from the show's messages about cultural appropriation and the historical biases that viewed bodily movement as low class. Katie Rose emphasized the influence dance has on society, and Sophia agreed, adding "dance is an integral piece of culture shifts." The art form also provides a unique historical lens, Sophia reflected: "Because your body is your medium in dance, there is nothing to hide behind. People can't escape their identities while dancing. You're seeing the most pure expression of who they are—their stories, their struggles."